This article contains spoilers for all of the X-Men movies.
X-Men is a beloved property with a rocky cinematic history. However, 2016 looks like a huge year for our favourite mutants, seeing the release of X-Men: Apocalypse, a solo Gambit outing, and the long awaited Deadpool movie. With this in mind and as part of our ongoing movie rankings, we’ve decided to dive in and sort the existing films worst to best.
It’s an odd task ranking films in order of quality, especially ones that come from comic books. Do you take into account the opinions of those familiar with the source material or do you try to pretend they don’t exist?
For the sake of argument I’ve decided to take it as read that the premise of mutants with powers living amongst us and the imaginary science that’s deployed to explain it is accepted by the audience. I’ve also decided to acknowledge the source material, but these rankings aren’t based on how far the films stay true to the original comics.
I’m also staying well away from continuity because the X-Men franchise is seemingly trying to rival Bond with their devil-may-care attitude to it, and to be honest, once you head down that hole, it’s hard to get back out.
In truth, I don’t think we’ve seen the best X-Men film that could be made from that source material but I’m optimistic for the future. With rumors that Hugh Jackman will be hanging up his claws and a whole host of new faces being introduced, change is coming to the X-Men Universe; fingers crossed it’s for the good. Let’s begin by seeing who’s at the back of the pack…
7. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not without its merits, but alas, they are few and far between.
Wolverine is one of the best loved X-Men stars and this plot does him no justice whatsoever. The opening credits sequence of Wolverine and Victor fighting their way through various wars is great, but once that’s done X-Men Origins: Wolverine quickly becomes a supercut of every cliché going. The bad boy renounces his life of crime but someone from his past tries to lure him back. Protagonist has his wife/girlfriend ‘stuffed in the fridge’ then goes on a rampage to seek retribution. Evil villain doing evil experiments in a secret medical facility. Leading man’s lover turns out to be in on the plan the whole time. When you add all this together it feels achingly banal.
On an aesthetic level, things don’t get much better. The CGI is awful, Wolverine’s adamantium claws look worse than they did in the original movie (that bathroom scene is so cringe-worthy). Not to mention the horrifying computer facelift they did on Patrick Stewart (a trick also deployed in X-Men: The Last Stand to similar freakish effect). Of the plethora of crimes the film commits, one of the worst is having some good cast but totally underutilising them. It seems strange to say this after the combined underperformance of John Carter and Battleship but Taylor Kitsch is a nifty Gambit. The little screen time he’s given is full of Cajun swagger and let it never be said that the man can’t twirl a bow staff with style.
Ryan Reynolds, as the widely seen test footage proved, has a huge amount of potential as Deadpool, but I struggle to think of a way they didn’t mess him up here. The assortment of random powers, the absence of the iconic costume and then the cardinal sin, taking a character beloved for his wise cracking quips and sewing his mouth shut. That final show down between him, Victor and Logan should be awesome but it’s just dull.
Financially X-Men Origins: Wolverine made sense, but films that are born from a spreadsheet rarely succeed in capturing the public’s imagination. Hugh Jackman is a hugely charismatic screen presence and to his eternal credit, he really tries, but with too much emphasis on things audiences don’t care about and a slapdash attitude to story, this film was doomed from the start.
6. The Wolverine
The argument still rages as to whether Wolverine is a strong enough character to carry a film on his own or not. I side with the former on the basis that there is promise in The Wolverine, but it falls short a lot of the time. The Wolverine has a great set up and locating the action to Japan plays nicely into the Wolverine mythos. It’s a lovely background to some excellent set pieces and widens the X-World beyond the shores of the USA. Whilst some of the cultural references feel over-explained, the setting is the movie’s strongest point. As Run DMC astutely said, “it’s tricky.” On one hand you have a character who lends himself to brooding, reflection on mortality and R rated action, on the other hand he’s immensely popular with the franchise’s younger fans who aren’t going to sit through two hours of Wolverine mourning someone else’s girlfriend. Ultimately the filmmakers decided to find a PG-13 middle ground and as a result the film feels unbalanced and conspicuously bloodless. I wish this had been rated R; it feels like it needed a bit of blood and self-surgery body horror to balance out the vast periods of soul searching.
Not content with simply being joyless, The Wolverine’s third act sees a jarring tonal shift from moody to needlessly cartoonish. Yashida’s plan makes no sense, the ham-fisted way the Silver Samurai is crowbarred in to the movie is completely unnecessary and Viper feels like she’s arrived by way of Uma Thurman’s Poision Ivy. Let’s all agree something now; if it evokes memories of Batman & Robin, you should leave it out of your film.
The mid-credits sting is probably one of the best since the Avengers Initiative dropped at the end of Iron Man but looking back, it feels a little like they made the film in order to tack an X-Men: Days Of Future Past teaser on the end of it. That a film which starts with a nuclear explosion, features ninjas, Yakuza, and culminates in a battle with a Samurai robot could be simultaneously dull and dumb sounds improbable, but The Wolverine – for all its merits – proves it can be done.
5. X-Men: The Last Stand
Much of the debating in this list was which came higher, The Wolverine or X-Men: The Last Stand. In truth they’re interchangeable, however where The Last Stand has the edge is that the central idea of the mutant antidote is genuinely interesting. What makes the serum storyline so good is that it draws a lot from the social reflectiveness inherent at the heart of the X-Men. We’ll talk about this again, but it doesn’t take a PhD in empathy to realise that some people are born different and that some of those people would rather that were not the case.
X-Men: The Last Stand picks the perfect character to express this in Rogue. In the films, Rogue has the ability of life-force absorption via physical contact and it’s easy to see why she’d rather be rid of it; her whole life is limited as a result of something she never asked for. Anna Paquin got a bit short changed for screen time after the first film and the serum idea isn’t as fleshed out as it should be, but she makes a go of injecting some heart into what is otherwise a tedious collection of rallying speeches and action set pieces.
Still, The Last Stand is a textbook example of how Hollywood wrongly thinks adding more ‘stuff’ makes films better. The excessive wire work, cars being flung around, flame throwers, ice blasters, upturned trucks and lest we forget the airborne Golden Gate Bridge; it gets tiresome rather quickly. Brett Ratner, in hindsight, might not have been the best choice to take over the director’s chair from Bryan Singer.
A multitude of mutants (I don’t know the collective noun for mutants but that should definitely be it) are introduced in The Last Stand, which plays into the more = better mentality. These characters could’ve been used to great effect, but they’re established then abandoned only to pop up at the finale to do something cool with their abilities.
This abandonment doesn’t end at new characters. The treatment of Cyclops across the entire franchise has been a bone of contention for many and the way his death was handled was slipshod at best. Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler was intended to come back for The Last Stand, but despite positive audience reaction to the character, his role was so insubstantial the studio thought it best to cut him out.
Casual viewers might get a kick out of it (and it’s they the film seems to be more aimed at), but by and large X-Men: The Last Standis an example of misplaced priorities. The mistreatment of the Gifted Serum storyline and the Dark Phoenix Saga is a thorn in the side of comic fans and for everyone else the preference of spectacle over substance is one that ultimately did not pay off. And frankly anyone who lets Vinnie Jones clog up the big screen exclaiming “Don’t you know who I am?!” doesn’t deserve to work with this kind of big name property.
4. X-Men: First Class
What was originally intended as X-Men Origins: Magneto morphed into X-Men: First Class and (despite having some truly awful posters) turned out a lot better than many were expecting.
Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy proved themselves extremely capable of stepping into the shoes of Ian Mckellen and Patrick Stewart. Fassbender plays the first two acts like a Bond audition tape and McAvoy is effortlessly charming. The interplay between them harkens back to the previous films, but with a dose of youthful exuberance which permeates throughout the rest of the film.
First Class does suffer slightly from the ‘multitude of mutants’ problem but not nearly as much as Last Stand does. Some of the team are a tad underdeveloped but the general sense of camaraderie helps paste over the cracks.
Those outside the inner circle don’t fare as well. Emma Frost and Moira MacTaggert are woefully underused and painfully insipid. Moira gets Charles in touch with the CIA but that’s about the limit of her agency, and January Jones is trying to portray Ice Queen but comes off as a disinterested walking cleavage; a waste of two characters who could’ve been brilliant.
There’s something admirable about the franchise’s recent trend of taking a historical event and claiming it as an X-Men related incident. Setting First Class up as part of the Cuban Missile Crisis feels a little audacious, but it works to raise the stakes above Magneto getting revenge on Shaw for the death of his mother.
The trouble with prequels is the level of inbuilt expectation from anyone familiar with the original story. If you start an X-Men prequel with Professor X walking around, there’s an unspoken understanding that something will happen, leaving him in a wheelchair, and First Class never manages to reconcile that expectation without it jarring slightly. The Professor X example is probably not the worst offender in First Class, the introduction of Cerebro, Beast taking on his cerulean hue and the awkward scene where they give themselves X-Men names all stick out like sore thumbs.
That said, the overwhelming feel of First Class is one of fun, and lots of it. Some of the ideas might be a bit hackneyed but after a slew of super serious comic book adaptations it felt like a breath of fresh air. X-Men: First Class reminded us that comic book movies can be a laugh.
X-Men does feature one of the worst incidences of dialogue delivery committed to film (“You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.”) but it also helped give comic book movies back some credibility. In fact, it was arguably the catalyst for the wave of comic book movies we saw in the 2000s.
X-Men does some stellar storytelling all in the first 10 minutes; by focusing in on Wolverine and Rogue you get a streamlined film that makes sense from start to finish. Compared to the over-long epics of today, clocking in at 104 minutes, X-Men feels quick but it’s the perfect length to get the franchise in motion and leave the audience wanting more.
With the exception of the aforementioned line, the dialogue in X-Men is great. The casting of Hugh Jackman initially drew concerns from X-fans, but no one can deny he delivers his lines with a crotchety wit befitting of Wolverine. The script takes shots at the dafter aspects of the universe like giving yourself a super-nickname and wearing pleather costumes, but crucially, it takes its world seriously, never undermining the story at its heart.
I dare say it would’ve been tempting to throw every effect and frenetic edit at the movie but Bryan Singer’s approach was one of steady pacing and coherence. This works on two levels. Firstly, it makes a vast and sprawling universe easy to get your head around. Secondly, the action scenes make so much more impact because they’re given breathing room either side. None of the action is done for the sake of it; the scene outside the train station (“you Homo sapiens and your guns”) says so much about the relationship and fundamental differences between Professor X and Magneto, but still has some fun stopping bullets and levitating cars.
Admittedly, when you put aside the introductions and scene setting, the story boils down to a simple case of ‘let’s stop Magneto before he does something daft’. It feels as though this is a deliberate move, having a simple framework from which to hang a character driven narrative, but it’s a shame that things seem to shift down a gear in the third act.
Compared to subsequent outings X-Men feels a bit front loaded and low stakes, but a lot of groundwork is laid and if this film wasn’t as good as it is the cinematic landscape we have today might be very different. It’s full of great dialogue with a cast that adds gravitas to a genre that many thought little of. It’s a gentle introduction but a nonetheless effective one.
2. X-Men: Days Of Future Past
The most recent X-Men film is definitely the most ambitious thus far. It’s a giant, cast merging, decade spanning, melting pot that probably has no right to be as good as it is.
The Past and Future elements gel together really nicely although it’s the Past that comes off best. The Future mutants Bishop, Blink, Sunspot and Warpath fall foul of a script packed with characters and rather than being fleshed out, they’re simply vessels for their abilities.
Speaking of abilities, it’s Blink’s portal producing power (say that 10 times fast…) that makes the opening scene of Days Of Future Past so good. It’s a brilliant sequence in a film that boasts a myriad of brilliant moments. There’s the scene in the Vietnam War, busting Magneto out of the Pentagon, at the Paris Peace Accords and of course, Time in a Bottle.
The absolute stand out of this film is Quicksilver. Not just Time In A Bottle, but whenever Evan Peters is on screen he absolutely lights it up. His powers have limitless scope meaning the question “why didn’t they just call Quicksilver?” will be posed whenever the team get in a tight spot, but he’s such a breath of fresh air it’s no wonder audiences loved him.
In fact, all of the cast are putting the best in. The Future gets a raw deal in terms of screen time but it’s fun to see Iceman and Colossus flex their powers in a proper fight. It’s also lovely that Stewart and McKellen deliver an unexpected dose of pathos expressing regret for their years of feuding. The Past is equally on form. Fassbender and McAvoy bring back their great chemistry, albeit now with a world weary edge, and Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask is fiendishly watchable.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past is not without it’s ‘Huh?’ moments. Kitty Pryde’s acquisition of time travel powers is an interesting one, and Mystique’s pig headedness would be deeply problematic were it not coming from someone as compelling as Jennifer Lawrence. It takes some suspension of disbelief to go with the idea that she’d still want to kill Trask after both her mentors telling her it’ll bring about the death of millions.
The best and weirdest thing about this whole enterprise is that it’s essentially Bryan Singer shaking his Etch A Sketch and starting again, getting the series back on track by throwing everything at it. Thankfully most of it sticks, and whilst it occasionally feels like you’re travelling from one brilliant set piece to another, the journey is a really good one.
“The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.” – Chris Claremont, X-Men writer 1975 – 1991.
X2 is the best balance between the superhero action we all know and love and the social context at the core of the X-Men story.
The opening of X2is the best the series has to offer; it’s hard to watch it and not get excited about what lies ahead. Nightcrawler was a great addition to this film; banf-ing here, banf-ing there in a glorious cold open. Alan Cumming is not in enough things for my liking (his recent book, on a non-X-Men point, comes highly recommended too) and he’s one of the most interesting characters in X2. Since its beginnings in the ’60s the central idea has been underpinned by ideas of prejudice and cultural integration (or the lack thereof); you can hold various social discrimination issues up as a mirror to the X-Men and it almost always fits. It works as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, but there are also a number of parallels with the treatment of Jews and minorities at the hands of the Nazis, which is what rings truest in X2.
Brian Cox’s William Stryker is by far the best villain the series has had to date. Viewing mutants as a threat to his own species, seeking justice for the death of his wife and generally being a bigoted douchebag, Stryker wants to commit genocide and he’s not above exploiting those around him to do it. Utterly deplorable from pretty much every angle, no other antagonist from the series to date has been able to hold a flame to him and attempts to redo that character simply aren’t as good.
This is also the film with the best group dynamic and number of characters. People are able to split off into their own side adventures without making things disjointed and just as easily come back as a unified team. Plus there’s the added fun of having the X-Men join forces with the Brotherhood, which brings a whole new dynamic to the franchise and some lovely interactions. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the first, second and third positions on this list have Bryan Singer’s directorial skills in common. He has a careful touch when it comes to the morality tale at the heart of X-Men but also has an appreciation of a well-placed action scene (which wasn’t always his strength). If I was Fox I’d back a dumper truck full of money to the man’s door and beg him to stay, because no one else has demonstrated a similar level of flare and sensitivity with these characters and their stories.
What sets the X-Men apart from other superheroes is that there is no consensus on whether mutants are an instrument for good within their world. There are instances of Batman being on the end of a backlash and J Jonah Jameson is always proclaiming Spider-man to be a menace, but by and large the public in those films love their heroes. X2shows us better than any other movie how the X-Men are a polarizing force, but despite this they continue to fight the good fight.